I knew there was a reason why I connected to Late Phases so quickly – its director also helmed another favorite of mine from last year, Here Comes the Devil. And since my records indicate that I have yet to write about Here Comes the Devil yet, I’ll mix it into the discussion about Late Phases as well.
First, I have to admit that I am developing an affinity for European horror directors more and more, and that’s not to slag on American horror directors at all. And I find that the American directors who stand out are those who work nearly completely independent of a studio system, like with Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, or Joe Swanberg. Because of their move away from traditional American studio system formula and constraint, those directors, along with many others, can really let loose and scare the living shit out of me, often while offending one of my sensibilities. And offensiveness is something that I find sorely lacking in the modern horror aesthetic, yet I don’t mean the kind of offensive where people should cry about how their feelings were hurt. The type of offensive that I mean might be closer to “provocative” in that there should be a knee jerk reaction to the horror narratives we consume. We should be shocked and unnerved to see someone’s spinal column removed and munched on by a horde of hungry beasts, or maybe see a person stalked and ultimately killed gruesomely, if either are integral to the horror narrative. And there is a way to distinguish the necessary gore and violence versus the gratuitous bloodletting that so many “independent” horror films go for these days. Actually, the more I think about it, the studio churned out horror seems to be the most egregious offenders of empty and superficial gore and violence. It’s empty of narrative purpose and therefore will lose impact and serve no other purpose other than to inspire some numb-nut’s killing spree creativity.
All of that being said, both Late Phases and Here Comes the Devil are fine examples of a European filmmaker, actually a Spanish filmmaker, who knows how to deliver a gut punch serving of gore that is grounded in narrative necessity. In Late Phases, we see a story of a blind Vietnam veteran whose wife has recently passed away and is somewhat forced to relocate to a senior retirement community in a rural neighborhood. This vet, Ambrose, played effectively by Nick Damici, is tough as nails and doesn’t understand the concept of being politically correct or even polite at times. His combat injury that blinded him also damaged him emotionally, as he was rather distant and abusive with his family. His only child, played by the ever awesome indie horror presence, Ethan Embry, does his best to placate and satisfy his difficult father’s needs. This poor bastard takes a lot of shit from his old man, but it’s clear that there is real love between father and son, just deeply hidden under emotional scar tissue on Ambrose’s behalf.
One greatly offensive act committed in this movie is the rather gruesome injury and eventual mercy killing of Ambrose’s service animal. It’s swift and vicious, but because we see how tender and caring Ambrose can be towards his service pet, whom he sees as his only friend, the death is rather effective and I was moved to see him deal with the death. Now, I don’t like to see animals killed in movies, actually that disturbs me more often than seeing a person killed onscreen, but this death is an example of a horror film handling a gory attack and eventual death that has dramatic weight and narrative purpose. The death of the service animal is used to help Ambrose figure out who or what came into his new house and attacked him. And another seemingly offensive act carried out successfully and with purpose is the death of an elderly woman. Again, I DO NOT want to see elderly people killed, but because of the way the film builds this character, the death means something to the characters and to the story. Each death in this movie, while rather gory and sometimes over the top, serves a purpose to propel the movie forward.
I admire these traits in Here Comes the Devil just as much, because again in this film, we as viewers are somewhat forced to confront some unpleasant facts of life, such as the death of children. This type of sentiment is cloaked in a psychedelic supernatural thriller’s clothing. In this movie, two children disappear in the mountains of a Mexican town and are presumed dead. The two kids go missing because Mom and Dad are too busy fuckin’ in their car in the middle of the day. Instead of going with the kids to keep an eye on them, they decide to spill fluids in the front seat. Nice. Without going into too much detail with this film, I can just say that this is only the beginning of a wild, albeit at times slow ride into possession, kid corpses, necrophilia, and some really odd deaths. This movie, as well as Late Phases has a feeling of 70’s paranoia and conspiracy thrillers, the ones where just about everyone else but the protagonists are suspects, and even one of the protagonists could be a suspect in disguise.
Both of these films have their over the top and gory moments, but with both films, the effectiveness of the horrors portrayed onscreen are rooted in very human concerns of mortality and loss of loved ones. Ambrose is clearly still mourning the loss of a woman whom he deeply loved but could not allow to love him, and that carries over to his son as well. While he doesn’t overtly regret the life he’s lived and the choices he’s made, Ambrose still shows his hurt after he lets his boy have it during one fight, and his son pretty much tells Ambrose to fuck off and die alone. And that’s nearly what Ambrose does, but instead he takes matters into his own hands and decides to fight the werewolf threat in his community. Oh, I forgot to mention, Ambrose fights a colony of retired werewolves. Yeah. Deal with it. This movie is so much more than just a werewolf movie, although the effects for the wolves are done really well, but this movie is about loss and grief and being torn to shreds. Just as Here Comes the Devil is much more than two parents who only connect through sex, it is about regret and loss. I can’t recommend these two flicks enough. They’re both still on Netflix the last time I checked, so see ’em while you can.